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What Have We Taught? Harvard Courses Are Academic, Not Ideological.

People walk past Widener Library in Tercentenary Theatre on Sunday afternoon.
People walk past Widener Library in Tercentenary Theatre on Sunday afternoon. By Julian J. Giordano
By Jocelyn Viterna
Jocelyn Viterna is a professor of Sociology and the Chair of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University.

This year, Harvard has come under attack by conservative voices using word counts — that is, the frequency of certain terms in course catalogs — as “evidence” that the University has abandoned its educational mission in favor of the so-called “ideological indoctrination” of students.

One such attack comes from a former dean of Harvard College and current computer science professor, Harry R. Lewis ’68.

In a widely circulated op-ed in The Crimson published in January, Lewis devised a list of words that he suggests are indicative of how left-wing faculty “indoctrinate” students. He then reported how often these words appear in Harvard’s course catalog.

While Lewis does acknowledge that “word frequency is an imperfect measure,” he nevertheless concludes that his word counts support “the suspicion that the Harvard curriculum has become heavily slanted toward recent fashions of the progressive left.”

The problem, of course, is that “word count” arguments like these are built on absurd analytical fallacies and highly manipulative presentations of data. They in no way provide evidence of “ideological indoctrination.”

Word count arguments follow a typical pattern: The author identifies a “progressive word,” and then expresses outrage at how frequently that word shows up in a course catalog. Astoundingly, however, word count authors fail to provide their readers with even the most basic context required to judge the magnitude of the reported word’s frequency — a denominator.

To illustrate, Lewis’ op-ed reports with dismay that the word “decolonize” appears in seven course titles and 18 course descriptions at Harvard, but neglects to mention that these seven courses constitute only 0.036 percent of 19,360 total courses — a percentage that hardly seems indicative of his so-called “heavy slant” toward progressive ideology.

When I replicate searches of the other so-called “progressive” words causing consternation among conservative commentators, I consistently find the same pattern: These words always appear in only a miniscule proportion of Harvard’s total course offerings.

Yet Lewis continues forward, lamenting that “decolonize” is “surely not the only lens through which to view the current relationship between Europe and the rest of the world,” implying that no other lenses are taught at Harvard. Yet when I brainstormed a list of my own words earlier this semester, I found ample evidence of other lenses. Globalization? 715 classes. Development? 3,029 classes. Trade? 171 classes. International relations? 114 classes.

Authors of “course count” arguments also routinely misrepresent the content of the so-called “progressive” classes in their tallies. For example, conservatives may register concern about the number of Harvard courses with the words “oppression” and “liberation” in their descriptions, but they neglect to mention that one of the first courses found under an “oppression” search is a seminar class introducing students “to the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust as an extreme example of antisemitism and racism, and of crimes against humanity and genocide.”

Similarly, one of the hits produced by a search for “liberation” is a Harvard Law School course titled “Classical Liberalism and the Rule of Law,” which offers a deep engagement with Friedrich A. Hayek, whose work has been highly influential in conservative politics. The instructor of this course, Raymond M. Kethledge, was among Donald J. Trump’s choices for Supreme Court nominations. Counting courses like these in a tally that supposedly represents “progressive” courses is undeniably disingenuous, if not flatly dishonest.

Finally, conservative “word counting” articles consistently fail to explain why they believe that writing a concept into a course description is equivalent to celebrating this concept in the classroom.

I routinely lecture on eugenics when I teach about reproductive rights at Harvard because I think it is important for Harvard students to understand the pivotal role played by the eugenics movement in promoting the legalization of contraception in the United States. However, were my course descriptions to include the word “eugenics,” the inclusion would in no way indicate that I am indoctrinating students into supporting an ideology of eugenics. Word counts may tell you which topics are taught in the classroom, but they tell you nothing about how those topics are taught.

Given the recent attention garnered by word count arguments in discussions about Harvard curricula, I enlisted the support of student research assistants to develop a more defensible counting strategy for those who give credence to such approaches. Using Harvard IT Services’ Application Programming Interface, my team and I created a data set by pulling course descriptions for all undergraduate classes offered in the Spring 2024 Harvard course catalog.

Following standard procedures in computational text analysis, we removed “stop words” — commonly used language devoid of meaning, like “the,” “was,” and “he” — and also merged words with the same root — so that, for instance, “student” and “students” are classified as the same word. Then we let the computer determine for us — without bias — which words appear with the greatest frequency.

The ten most frequently used words in the Harvard course catalog were: student, read, include, study, culture, explore, develop, research, politics, language. Rather than suggesting nefarious indoctrination protocols, these results suggest that Harvard faculty are pushing students to explore, develop, and research.

Moreover, similar themes of scientific exploration continue even as we travel further down the word count list. The word cloud below shows the top 100 words in the Spring 2024 Harvard Course Catalog; the bigger the font, the more frequently the word was found.

One hundred most frequent word stems in course descriptions for classes at the "undergraduate and graduate" or "primarily undergraduate" levels offered in Spring 2024 in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
One hundred most frequent word stems in course descriptions for classes at the "undergraduate and graduate" or "primarily undergraduate" levels offered in Spring 2024 in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. By Courtesy of Jocelyn Viterna

The analytical fallacies of word count arguments are so absurd as to be almost laughable. But when members of Harvard’s own community purposefully manipulate word count data to attack our institutional credibility, my propensity for laughter fades.

Harvard faculty and students are divided on many issues facing the University today. Yet despite these divisions, I hope we can always unite around an unwavering commitment to intellectual integrity, academic rigor, and good faith dialogue — foundational values for all research institutions.

One certainly doesn’t have to be a Harvard professor to understand why failing to include a simple denominator in a “word count” argument is manipulative. But perhaps publishing manipulative interpretations of “word count” data should raise concerns about one’s own role as a Harvard professor.

Jocelyn Viterna is a professor of Sociology and the Chair of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University.

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